“Get him out of my sight before I kill him.” Mirage murmured to Abid who stood beside her. Prince Kiyan of Shawra; a young naval officer with dark brown hair and crinkling brown eyes stood in front of her, his breath heavy and his temper through the roof. He was held back by three members of the royal guard. As usual, Kiyan had used this opportunity to berate her as much as he could. It was not surprising that many of the princes had indeed been less grateful for an opportunity to meet the princess and had just entered the hall, screamed the house down, and had to be taken out forcibly.
King Sarosh watched from the gallery above the village hall which Mirage had chosen as the meeting place with the princes. Everything had gone smoothly, at least to her it had. After choking on a piece of flat bread at breakfast this morning, King Sarosh had to be held back by his children as his hands reached out to kill her. Mirage just sat calmly, watching it all with amusement and munched on some feta. After being taken out of the room by Queen Nadira, King Sarosh calmed down and ordered Mirage to explain herself. Mirage went into as little detail as she could, and just told him she couldn’t face such a dreary decision and wanted to take some time to blow off some steam before seeing those cowards line up in front of her. In her opinion, losers do not deserve a chance for redemption; not one of this kind. King Sarosh’s lips set in a thin line but after a few moments in which Queen Nadira rolled her eyes and wondered how her husband could fall for such a pathetic excuse, King Sarosh stood up, and growled, “And the message on the mirror?”
Mirage smiled sweetly, “You know how much I love to tease you, father.”
“I told you before not to create trouble for me.” His gaze was deadly.
“And did you think I’d actually listen to you?” She smirked.
King Sarosh stared at her and eventually his gaze softened. He sighed.
And now, five hours later, five hours in which she was scrubbed, polished, cleaned and then made to look like a painted doll, she sat slumped in her high chair dressed in deep purple and silver robes, a diamond crown she had privately bought from a shady dealer in China sat proudly amongst the puffed-up hairdo on her head. As each prince came and went, introducing themselves and showering her with praise for her intelligence and how the invasion had actually saved them for redemption. Never before had she seen people lie so much. They all hated her, as many said so after she’d make a scathing comment about their country.
As Prince Kiyan was escorted out, Mirage sighed, “I’d have more fun looking at horses. Who knew choosing a husband would be so boring?!”
Abid frowned a little and cleared his throat. “Men and horses are different.”
“You’re right. Horses are more fun, and they are different from one another. All these men are starting to look the same to me…” She mumbled.
“Sepehr. What do you think?” She asked, turning to him.
Sepehr and the rest of the royal guard stood to one side, observing Mirage as she criticized the princes when they came and went, eventually snickering at the ridicule.
Sepehr looked ahead, “I’m not paid to think. I have no say in this.” He ignored the other men beside him who chuckled.
Mirage snorted in the most unladylike way, “That’s the first time you’re obeying the laws in your job description. You always have an opinion on something.”
Sepehr stood silent. Shaking her head and rolling her eyes at him, she turned to Navid. “What do you think? Who would you bet on in a fight? Sepehr or a horse?”
Navid smirked. All the members of the royal guard were Mirage’s friends and were the only ones apart from Tatiana and Sepehr who spoke frankly with her, not caring about their status or hers.
“Sepehr is better built.” He shrugged and ran a hand through his luscious brown head of hair. Mirage always teased him that he had the hair that women dreamt of having.
“That’s because he eats the poor horses for breakfast. Now we know why they keep disappearing from the stables.” She mocked Sepehr.
“No, they keep disappearing because you take them out when you go hunting and forget where you left them.” Sepehr snapped at her.
“They’ll live.” She flicked her hand. King Sarosh shook his head at the conversation. They’d been her friends since she started training. He couldn’t harm them or teach them some manners even if he wanted to. The royal guard enjoyed their position in the forces because Mirage loved and defended them more than her actual siblings.
“Prince Arya of Qushaab” A voice sounded and as the door opened and Prince Arya stepped in, she sat up, “See, look at him. He looks so much like…” she frowned, trying to remember, “Azad from Norasaab. They both look the same.” She said. Abid eyed her with alarm, indicating to the kings and Queens sitting upstairs as they watched their children parade.
Ignoring him, she looked at Arya who opened his mouth to speak. Mirage called out, “No! Go home. Next.”
Prince Arya grew red. “But…” He started.
“I said NEXT.” Mirage screamed.
She snickered as Arya stomped out, not even closing the door behind him.
“Poor child. Make sure he’s not crying. He’ll kill himself now because I didn’t choose him.” She said to Sam, a member of the royal guard.
Abid leaned down a little. “Do not mock them. This is a moment of great humiliation to them after their defeat. The least you can do is let them put in a word.” He said through gritted teeth.
She looked up at him in the eye. “They should have been stronger then. And I’m not mocking them, I’m telling the truth.”
“Princess Mirage.” Stated a deep voice and she looked down.
Sina smiled as Mirage’s eyes widened. God, he’s delicious. Aara’s words echoed through her head as she smiled back.
Before he could say anything, Mirage stood up. She wanted to talk to him without an audience. Extending her hand, she glided down and Sina reached for it. He made to kiss it, but she shook his hand energetically instead.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Prince Sina.” She said, looking at him with a leer.
Sina stepped back and said, “And to you, princess. I must say, Rehbartaj is beautiful but you are more beautiful than what people say. Your portrait…” “Does not do you any justice at all.” She finished for him. “Blah, blah, blah. I’ve heard it all before.” She said and walked past him to the door. The guards opened it and she turned to Sina.
“Walk with me.” She said simply.
Sina stared at her and after a few moments, bowed in acceptance of her command. He kept a safe distance as Mirage swept her robes, adjusted her crown and waltzed off through the corridors. She could hear her father’s chair scraping as he stood up, wanting to shout after her to stop acting like an idiot and come back at once but she hurried off. Her royal guards were behind Sina, marching purposefully on ahead. Their boots made echoing stomps, and as Mirage rounded the corner and disappeared, Sina looked back at Sepehr.
“What’s going on?” He asked.
They all came to a stop at the top of the stairs which led to the corridor housing the entrance to the dining hall and the back gardens. The dining hall doors were open and Mirage’s slippers slapping the ground could be heard from afar. Sina hurried on and made it all the way to the stairs leading to the gardens where Mirage had stationed herself, grinning.
“Do you always have to make me run after you?” Sina asked at last.
Mirage’s smile faltered and she looked out at the peacocks roaming amongst the roses.
Sina looked at her passively and leaned against his back against a pillar, folding his arms. His stance reminded Mirage of Salar and last night and she involuntarily shivered. Sepehr and the rest stayed back, not wanting to eavesdrop.
After a while, Sina spoke. “Well?”
Mirage frowned a bit.
“What do you have to say?” Sina probed.
Still not speaking, Sina sighed at Mirage. “You know what you did was wrong.” He said quietly.
Mirage said archly, “Was it?”
“My country may not be as fertile as yours, or as beautiful. But the people loved it just the same. There was no reason to destroy us from the roots.” He said.
“You were already weak.” Mirage said, bunching her hands into fists.
“Weak, yes. But we still lived. You destroyed our economy, or livelihood. Do you have any idea how bad it was the night of the attack?! How many lives were lost?” He said, straightening up, his nostrils flaring.
“Rubbish.” Mirage said, finally looking at him. “No one died in Kasra, it was a bloodless coup.”
“Is that what your father told you?” He asked, looking at her with pity.
How dare you pity me?! My father would never hide a single thing from me, Mirage thought angrily.
“Perhaps it was your family who lied to you.” She snapped.
“Right and people just happened to drop dead all of a sudden with bullets in their heads and holes in their bodies?!” Sina asked, taking a step towards her.
Mirage looked at him. How could she think that Sina would still be her friend? Her father had ruined everything, all the relations with the neighboring countries, their economies, people’s lives. The plan was subtle from the start. It had started two years ago when Rehbartaj had slowly tweaked the Eastern market to slow down production in the struggling countries since most trade centered on Rehbartaj. People out of jobs with no money resulted in an acute rise in crime, theft and even murder. Rehbartaj had bought most of the commercial real estate in those countries through ghost companies which were really Rehbartaj’s representatives in disguise and made sure to take over the major businesses. When they had taken over the financial, productive and trade center of those countries, they had shut it all down, crashing the financial district and making the countries more vulnerable than ever and no one even knew that Rehbartaj was behind it all. And at that point, they had attacked. And that was only half of the idea. And it had all been Mirage’s plan.
Sina closed his eyes and turned his head against the sudden breeze. “We are being kept as prisoners there. This cold air which you take for granted? We can’t get it in those cells. Your armies have locked us in our own homes. Now we don’t work for ourselves. We work for you.” He opened his eyes and they were glassy.
Mirage bit her lip. She knew it all. None of it was exactly new to her. Even though she was against keeping people as their prisoners, her father had kept that law. He thought she didn’t know about the captives.
Mirage took a deep breath and looked back at Sepehr meaningfully who took the message and signaling to the others, trooped out of the dining hall, knowing that Mirage was fully capable of handling herself if things took a wrong turn for at least a few moments before they’d kill the attacker.
Sina looked back as he heard the door shut and seemed momentarily irritated.
“I know about it all.” Mirage said in a clear voice, “Which is why I wanted to talk to you separately. I want you to do something for me.”
“And why would I do anything for you? After all you’ve done?” He sneered.
“Because it’s quite obvious that you’d rather much kill me than marry me, and I am in no way interested in marrying you.” She said.
“But then again, who is?!” He added childishly.
Mirage’s mouth tightened but she chose to ignore his comment. “I’ve already sent the command. By this time in two days, your people will be free.”
Sina’s eyes bugged. “W…what?” He stuttered, not being able to believe it.
“I am completely against it. Taking the freedom of so many is not what I had in mind. You were incapable of ruling a kingdom and we knew you wouldn’t be able to do much with the state of your advisors. They’re all pig-headed and greedy.” Mirage said, not even attempting to sweeten the details. “You told me in a letter last year that you were feeling very off and that you had been sick for a long time. One of your advisors, Kaspe?” She waited as he nodded in recognition, “He was poisoning you. No heir to the throne meant destruction. I send the letter to Sardar, your Vazir.”
“How do you know all this?” Sina asked.
“I have my sources.” She shrugged.
“Why are you freeing us?”
“You’ll be of better use to me in good health and good wishes.” She said simply.
Sina stepped out into the garden and Mirage watched him think it all over. It seemed that every day she had to tell someone something about the invasion which she assumed they already knew. She was starting to resent the day she had come up with the plan.
Fingering the soft petal of a rose, Sina murmured. “What does the King have to say about this?”
Side-stepping a wandering peacock, Mirage made her way to him and gazed at the rose in his hand. “It’s not his decision to make.”
“So it means you haven’t told him?”
“It means that I’ve taken care of it. He knows what I did was right.” She lied. King Sarosh didn’t know anything about the prisoner’s release at all.
“You’re being very gracious.” He said and broke off a petal.
“I am gracious.” She said modestly.
Sina glanced at her. “So what happens now?”
Mirage smiled. “I can’t tell you my decision now, but now that you know the truth,” She took a step towards him, and leaning past him, snapped the rose off its stem. “I think you’ll be able to tolerate me a little if I choose you.”
“And will you choose me?” He asked, his eyes flickering to the blood red rose in her pale hands.
Mirage handed the rose to Sina, letting her hand stay a bit longer in his grasp a bit longer than necessary when he accepted it. “You’ll just have to find out like the rest.” And with that, she turned and floated off back into the castle.
Looking down at the rose in his hand, Sina blinked. Damn those eyes and that mouth. Why is it that every time she comes in front of you, it feels like she’s saying sense.
Mirage sat back down in her throne and waited for Salar who she had made sure would appear last.
Azin and Rostam of the royal guards gestured for her to sit up and straighten her gown which had ridden up to reveal her legs. Like brothers. Only worse, Mirage thought as she stretched her gown down and arched her back to relieve her pain.
“Prince Salar Mir Sahilibur” The booming voice echoed through the hall and the doors opened.
Mirage hid a smile as Salar marched up to his spot in front of her. Bowing, he introduced himself formally, as if he hadn’t actually lusted after the princess last night and touched her flesh.
Mirage tilted her head. Salar waited for Mirage to ask him something but she just stared at him, her eyebrows raised in amusement. No prince was allowed to say anything except the answers to Mirage’s questions after their introduction and a little line of praise.
Mirage smiled at him in fascination as if he had just burst out into song and was had started juggling firecrackers. She heard her father clear his throat irritably, signaling her to go ahead and ask him anything but she didn’t. After minutes passed without any of them uttering a single word, Salar; who had been smiling when he had entered, could take it anymore and blurted, “Are you not going to ask me anything, Princess?”
Mirage’s smile disappeared and was replaced by a grim line as if he had just insulted her. Leaning towards Abid, who was taking notes of each meeting, she whispered loudly, “No patience. Not a good thing in a husband.”
Salar’s jaw set. What was she playing at?!
Turning to him, she sneered, “To answer your question, I was just thinking whether you were worth my time. I personally don’t care much for big hulks of muscles. They have more brawns than brains.”
Salar’s eyes popped. He couldn’t believe that she was saying this, and in front of everyone, even her guards. His eyes flickered to them and Mirage caught the action.
“They are my protection. They’re not allowed to think. You, on the other hand, should.” Sitting back, she regarded him with leisure. “Tell me, Prince. What will you bring to this marriage? And this kingdom? What should I consider you?”
Looking up at the balcony, Mirage registered her father’s shocked expression and suddenly stopped as she saw Queen Nadira standing behind the King’s chair, looking down at her with disappointment etched on her face. She addressed her father, but kept her eyes on her mother, “Tell me father. What is your plan? Why should I choose from this…?” She looked back at Salar with disgust. “… This imbecile who should very well be tending to our gardens and shoveling around hay for the horses, rather than dreaming of royalty and power?!” King Sarosh’s mouth fell open as his daughter’s harsh words and Queen Nadira looked up nervously towards the balcony seating the kings and queens. Exhilarated at watching the pompous King Darius’s son being taken apart like that, many tried to suppress their grins since their sons hadn’t been humiliated as much. King Darius however was red with rage and bristling with indignation.
Tearing her gaze off her mother’s face, she turned to Salar who had gone pale; not with fear, obviously, but with rage. All thoughts of last night forgotten, his hand itched towards his waist but he couldn’t feel his sword there. Of course, they took away all the weapons when we got here. He thought, exasperated. Sepehr cleared his throat discreetly and Salar glared at him. Sepehr held his gaze and very slowly, shook his head, as if to say, don’t fall for it. Don’t lose your cool.
Mirage snapped, “Look at me.” She looked fiercely at Salar, “You think you’d be lucky enough to get on that special force?!” She pointed to Sepehr and the others. “They’d kill you in an instant.”
Mirage’s mind was going into overdrive. She knew she was being rude beyond belief, but this had to be done. Salar stared at her, gritting his teeth as images of violence flashed before his eyes.
Mirage asked suddenly, “Who trains your armies?”
Salar looked surprised. “I do.” He said, “I am the commander.”
Mirage snorted in derision. “No wonder you lost.”
Suddenly, she stood up and strode to him, coming to halt a few feet from him. She looked up in his eyes and he recognized the same venom he had seen in her eyes last night, the same tone of voice and then something clicked. She had tested him last night. And she had said that she was not going to make it easy for him, he’d have to seduce her. Win her over to his side.
His lips parted at the revelation. Mirage however carried on with the ridicule. “Aren’t you going to answer me, or are you just going to stand here all day looking like an idiot?” She narrowed her eyes.
Salar looked down into her face. He said quietly. “I’d be the best thing that’d ever happen to you.”
Mirage raised her eyebrows and crossed her arms. “Oh and how’s that?”
Salar whispered, “Because I’m starting to understand you.”
Mirage didn’t move but slowly, her lips spread into a cruel smile, “You are so mistaken. You don’t know me at all.”
“Is that why I know that you’re testing my tolerance? Because I know that’s the one thing you value above all.” He said, starting to enjoy Mirage’s reaction.
Not answering him, Mirage gave him a head-to-toe look and started circling him, her eyes straying to every bit of him. He stayed still as she walked behind him and murmured, “Humor me then.”
Salar took a deep breath. “Your father is a shining example of tolerance. Your entire family, your ancestors; they all gave their lives so that you could live happily. You all have patience and intelligence. I just feel that with me, you’d have everything you wanted.” Mirage circled him once more, reluctantly tearing her eyes from his taut backside, “And why is that?” She asked distractedly.
“You have tolerance and I have power; power to influence the people. And above that, power to understand your decisions, even if others don’t.” He said, as Mirage studied him with her icy eyes. To make him more uncomfortable, she came to stand in front of him, looking at him in the eyes, and slowly retreated, her gaze wandering from his face, down his chest before settling at his pelvis. It took all her strength to control her giggles as Salar figured out where she was staring and grew a bit red. She was starting to enjoy watching him blush. She was quite fascinated by the fact that she had the power to make such a hulking man blush. Not many women had this power.
She stopped a few feet from her throne and her smile switched from cruel to amuse with the flex of a muscle. “What do you know…?” She said, and looked up at the kings and queens. She looked back down at Salar and her eyes widened a bit as she said, “A monkey with a brain.”
As they chuckled, King Darius fought with himself, nearing the urge to hurl himself over the balcony and attacking the little dog-faced whore. Not one inch like her mother, he thought furiously.
Mirage knew very well what King Darius thought of her, and glancing at his expression, decided that this was enough entertainment for her today. Sitting back down, she called out. “I am tired now. Leave.” Waving a hand at him, she rested her head as if she was exhausted. Abid went down to Salar who still staring at her, “Thank you, your highness. The guards will escort you back to your quarters.” Salar looked from Mirage to Abid, feeling a bit dazed.
As Abid gently turned Salar away, Salar caught a last glance of Mirage, and amid the sounds of chairs being scraped, and her suddenly becoming surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting who were waiting to take her away to her room to rest, he saw it. From between the curves of the ladies and a sudden tinkling chorus of laughter, he saw Mirage who looked straight at him and smiling mischievously, winked and blew a kiss at him.
“Well, that was fun.” King Sarosh murmured to his wife as he stood up, watching all her ladies-in-waiting surround Mirage and a sudden burst of laughter sounded at some joke Mirage had made.
“She’ll get killed if she keeps this on.” Queen Nadira hissed angrily.
“Nonsense.” He dismissed the notion, “And besides, we have other things to think about. I happen to know where our darling daughter was in the last three days and whose idea it was.”
“But Sarosh, Darius was so angry. She was so cruel to his boy. She didn’t talk that way to any of the others and…” She stopped suddenly, her eyes wide.
King Sarosh turned to look at his wife who was staring at Mirage, unable to believe her eyes. Her head jerked as she looked somewhere and back at Mirage. King Sarosh reached out and shook her arm. “What is it?”
This is ridiculous. But I saw what I saw. I can’t believe that girl; she’s in so much trouble. Something is going on between her and that boy. Queen Nadira shook her head, “Nothing.”
“Where’s Tatiana?” Mirage asked later, seated on a tasseled seat in front of her dressing table. Her ladies gently took off her crown which seemed to be sewn onto her head. This one was lighter than the one she had worn at the union feast but it still hurt like hell.
“She was called away, madam, on something regarding your dresses, I think.” Said one of the ladies whose names Mirage was always confused in. Not bothering to concern herself with Tatiana’s whereabouts; no doubt this had to be one of Sepehr’s tricks to get near his bride for a much needed private moment, Mirage tensed as the pins holding up her hair started getting pulled out of her head. Her hair stuck on awkward ends as the pins were pulled apart and after her long hair were finally rid of all those offensive needles, she didn’t bother to take off the dress and shooing away her ladies, she flopped down onto her bed for a well-deserved rest. After all, insulting people all day took a lot of hard work.
It was quite a long time before she woke up. It was probably 4 in the afternoon. She was temperamental enough, but if she was disturbed from her slumber, Mirage would turn into a monster. Rolling over her back, she rubbed her eyes, not wanting to open her eyes and grabbing her blanket, pulled it over her head.
“You have a beautiful room, although it’s not according to your taste at all.” A deep voice sounded from far away.
Mirage frowned a little, trying to place the voice in her dream. She didn’t hear the voice again and slipped back into a sleep-induced coma after a little while. Dreaming about nothing in particular, she was suddenly yanked up by her wrist and she awoke, not quite sure what was happening. She felt the person’s hand on her waist as she was pushed out of bed and was being forced to stand. She didn’t even open her eyes before she reacted. Her free hand shot straight up and her palm hit the person on the nose hard. Twisting around, she wound her legs between the attackers and jerked her knees around theirs. Instantly, she felt them give away and snaking around the person’s back, she grabbed the person’s neck, digging her long nails into the person’s jugular vein, the other hand grabbing the person’s hand which had been holding her wrist and holding it behind them. She was wide awake and even though the world in front of her was hazy, her instincts weren’t. That was when she realized that the person on his knees in front of her was none other than Salar.
“What nerve.” She snarled, shaking his head violently. “How did you get in here?”
His neck arched, Salar relaxed his hands, not believing that this little nymph had just disarmed him. “I found a secret passageway.” He gasped as Mirage’s nails dug in further.
“That’s a lie and you know it.” She hissed. “I’ve lived in this castle all my life and I couldn’t find a secret passageway. This castle isn’t built like that.”
“I can show it to you if you want.” He said smiling, despite the lack of oxygen. For such a little person, she had a lot of strength. He couldn’t move his arm and it felt as though his bones were locked from the elbow up.
“And why should I trust you?” She said and he suddenly felt her relax against him. She leaned down and whispered in his ear, “Should I kill you now for trespassing into the princess’s room or should I just call upon my father so that he can have his guards take care of you? You know they’re all masters in the art of torture.” Her breath tickled his ear and he smiled for the perfect opportunity. With all his might, he jerked his leg and rolled over her. Taken by surprise, Mirage let go of his throat and slithered away quickly so as not to be crushed by Salar’s mass. Quick as a fox, he took her by the ankle and she fell and seizing the moment, he stood up, dragged her towards him and grabbing her by the waist, raised her up. She thrashed as she felt the ground disappear from under her. Holding her away from himself by her waist, he looked up at her grinning widely. She put her hands over his and tried to squirm but he didn’t let go, holding her like a weightless doll.
Admitting defeat, she breathed heavily, and placed her hands on her hips. “Let me down.” She said through gritted teeth.
“You promise to behave?” he teased and tightened his grip.
She didn’t react. “Do you want me to kick you in the face or down there?” she said, trying to keep a straight face through the pain.
“I saw you looking down there. I didn’t have you down as a leering pervert.” He smirked and avoided the kick that flew in his face.
“I was looking at you like I look at everyone. I wasn’t leering and I am not a pervert.” She said, aiming for another kick.
Abruptly, he threw her onto the bed and she yelped at the sudden sensation of flying. She landed on her unmade bed and bounced, looking daggers at him.
Walking away from her, her gaze followed him as he went to the far side of her room near the windows and suddenly flipped over the ledge. Mirage’s mouth fell open but no scream came out. Horrified, she struggled off the bed and ran to the window, looking down for the splat of blood, but there was none. How could this be?! Was that all an illusion? As she looked around frantically, out of the blue a hand moved to her wrist and she was pulled out of the window. She would have yelled had it not been for Salar’s hand covering her mouth. Waiting for the imminent death, it was a while before she realized that she was still standing on the ground. Opening her eyes, she looked up at Salar who was standing too close, and was indeed looking down her bodice.
Shoving him away, she grumbled, “Who’s a leering pervert now?” Shaking, she went past him and stood on the end of a ledge just beneath her window. It was there, she wasn’t dreaming. High up, the wind whistled past her and she shivered. She could still see the village stretching in front of the castle and even the glass ceiling of her room in Saulta. The river glittered brightly. How could she have not discovered this place!
Wordlessly, she looked at Salar who grinned. “It’s called optical illusion. Since the tower is so high up, no one thinks of looking at it. I discovered this place yesterday evening. I’m quite quick in such mysteries.” And taking her hand, he led her into the dark empty room with a low ceiling. She could make out cobwebs the size of shields which hung from the ceiling and the floor like stalactites and stalagmites. There were no windows, just the entrance without a door leading off the tower. It was smaller than the room upstairs, and she could make out the side where the stairs were and gazed around, dumbfounded.
Not aware that she was holding onto Salar’s hand rather tightly, she pulled him to a corner where her dressing table would be. There, in the corner, sat a small pot made out of pure gold. “Well, that explains it.” She exclaimed, eyeing its dull sheen.
Salar shook her hand, “What? What does it explain?”
“A princess was killed in my room a long time ago by her lover.” She explained excitedly, “We could never figure out how he got in since her room was guarded at all times. The poor guards at that time were almost executed because of suspicion.”
“Almost?” Salar asked frowning.
“Grandfather stepped in. He was only in his teens at that time, but he knew the princess obviously. She was his sister. He told them all about the princess’s star-crossed lover and when they found him, he told them about a room beneath the tower. They searched for it for a long time. Even the floor was ripped out but they found nothing. In the end, the man was cast as a delusional psychopath and put to death, but now I know it’s true. This is so exciting.” Reaching down, she made to pick up the pot but Salar tugged her away.
“Are you mad? That’s a disgusting thing. Don’t touch it.” He said, wrinkling his nose. It took a person like Mirage to feel at home in a room where a murder had taken place.
“But…” She looked eagerly at the pot, “It could have anything in it. Maybe a love letter or the dagger with which she was killed, oh come on, please let me see it.” Her tone was almost begging. He looked down at the squirming Mirage whose focus right now was only on the pot and he caught a glimpse of the girl who she was inside, and not the dictator she was growing up to be.
“No.” He said firmly and dragging her away back into the light, he held her against a clean patch of wall and smiled as he saw her pout. She glared at him sourly and looked away. Reaching up, he took her chin in his hand the same way she had last night, and turned her face towards him. She met his eyes and he breathed as the blue shade gave way to a sudden burst of Celeste, matching the sky behind her.
Her eyes drifted over his face and down to his neck when they suddenly widened, “Oh Allah, I think I was too wild.” And reaching up, she touched the side of his neck where her nails had been. She gently caressed his skin and Salar took a step towards her but she stopped him, holding up her hand which was smudged with blood. His, apparently.
He immediately let go of Mirage’s hand and reached up. Surely enough, there were the tell-tale signs of blood and as he fingered the wound gently, he felt three cuts, not deep but still hurting him quite a bit.
“You know, no one’s ever drawn my blood before, and you did it with just your nails.” He said, rubbing the skin gently.
Mirage smirked, her eyes wavering to his neck and back to his face. “Don’t take what you hear about me lightly.” She stuck her chin out, “And you kill men with your bare hands, don’t tell me you’re scared at the sight of your own blood!”
He looked down at the smudges of blood on his hand and sighed, “I won’t.” He wiped his hand against his shirt. “So should I assume what you did to me was a thing of nature?”
“What did I do to you?” She asked, amused.
Moving closer to her, she looked into his face, her expression determined. “Well, you promised me that we are… together now.” He said, not touching her. “But you did seduce me. So am I to assume that this is just a reoccurring trick that you do to all the princes? To make them fight for you?” Hurt flashed across her face and he didn’t see the resounding slap coming.
She pushed him away, furious at his statement, his right ear ringing. “How dare YOU!” Her voice raised an octave as she shook with anger. “How dare you accuse me of something like that?! I was honest with you last night. I felt you understood. You certainly weren’t feeling that way when you were running your hands all over me.”
He knew he had stepped over the line. Raising his hands in defeat, he tried to calm her down. Soldiers with guns and swords were nothing to a woman’s anger. This was the one thing he couldn’t understand neither control. But he had to state his point. “Look, you can’t expect me to not think like that. I saw you going away with Sina and when he came back later, he didn’t tell me anything about his conversation with you. He just said that you were wonderful, so I just assumed…” He quickly moved to the side as Mirage’s fist went sailing past his right side, and grabbing it, backed her up against the wall. Instantly, he was rewarded with a kick she had promised to him when he’d held her up in the air. Doubling over, he watched her stalk past him. She started ripping the cobwebs off, looking for a way to get out of the secret room since she wasn’t tall enough to climb back up the window. Her previous mood utterly destroyed by Salar’s accusations.
Righting himself up, Salar breathed deeply as Mirage’s hands roamed across the dusty walls. She came near the gold pot and shoved it aside with her foot. She jumped back as a wall opened, leading a way down. Apparently, the pot was a lever judging by the fact that it had only moved an inch when she had kicked it away. She thundered down the steps, not bothering to look back, wanting to get away from Salar as soon as possible. She couldn’t believe that he would think of her as a harlot of sorts. And it hadn’t even been a full day since her decision. She stumbled down the rotting stairs as it narrowed around her and finally came to a stop at the bottom. It was quite dark and she couldn’t even see her hands in front of her. Her fingertips trailed along the narrowing walls on both sides and the ceiling a few inches above her and passing over the edges, they halted at the wall in front of her. She obviously didn’t have a light and since she couldn’t see, she couldn’t search for a brick or a lever even if she wanted to. The wall seemed complete with no brick out of place. She was stuck. I don’t want to go back. I’ll just stay here for a while. He’ll probably go back through my room. This place is too small. She thought.
Her breath grew cold as she felt a cobweb brush her hand. Maybe she had come down the wrong passageway. Maybe this was a dead end. Blindingly feeling the stones in front of her; she put an ear against it and tried to listen to any sound. There was none and she was starting to get uncomfortable in the small confines of the passageway. Her erratic heart and the sound of blood whooshing through her head were not helping. She didn’t want to go back up right away and face him. And he probably won’t have the nerve to come down after her after accusing her of seducing him along with the other princes.
Trying to ignore her panic; she humphed as her thoughts went back to a few moments ago. “Stupid idiot! The nerve of him! I didn’t even know I was seducing him until Tati told me that I was and he goes around thinking that I’m doing the same to all of them?! I’d kill him if I wasn’t so blind right now.” She mumbled away as she pushed against the wall in exasperation.
“So Tatiana knows about us!” Salar’s voice cut through the darkness along with Mirage’s scream. They fumbled in the darkness as Mirage attempted to push him away and he reached out to grab her. Losing her footing, she fell on him and he caught her.
“LET GO OF ME!” She screamed, probably in his face and kicked him willy-nilly. She must have hit him on the legs because she felt them going down, judging by the thud of his muscle against the edge of the stairs. She was still on top of him and holding her by both arms; Salar waited until she stopped kicking and struggling like a whiny child.
Finally, he felt her relax in his grasp. “I am sorry.” He said.
“That sentence is becoming the only thing you say to me now. How about trying to improve yourself and not be sorry once in a while!” She spat.
Their breathing was heavy and Mirage felt her head spinning at the lack of oxygen. “Look, I’ll apologize when we go back up, you came the wrong way. This place is a dead end.”
“I know that now. Thank you for telling me when I was going down these stairs.” Mirage snapped and squealed as his hand brushed past her back and through her hair before settling over her mouth which was unsettlingly close to his. No wonder he could feel her breath on his face.
“Would you for once in your life let someone finish what they’re saying?!” He shouted as she started fighting against his hands.
“Stop it. Stop fighting.” He shouted. He knew very well that no one could hear them since beyond that wall was more stone. Suddenly, hearing him shout like that, Mirage stopped. He held her like that for a few moments before letting go of her mouth. “Will you listen to me now?” He asked.
She mumbled something incoherent and as if all the fight had gone out of her, rested her forehead against his shoulder; her hands lose on his chest.
“Look”, he said gently, “I am sorry but you have to let me have some doubts here. It’s not like I’ve known you my whole life… like Sina.”
Mirage mumbled, “Sina and I met seven years ago and we only talked for a few hours in the company of dozens of other people. He’s not my friend.” She omitted the part about the fight.
“Alright. I believe you. And I apologize for accusing you of doing something that you didn’t do. I’m sorry.” She’s right. I say this to her a lot. Why am I apologizing? She’s the one who kicked me in the groin and ran for it. She should be apologizing to me. And yet, he didn’t voice his opinion and instead, opted for another topic.
“Why were you like that today?” He asked, reaching up to stroke her hair, simply because he couldn’t help it.
She found her voice. “You mean why was I acting like you’re an excuse of a man, not worth my time and a complete insensible fool of a pig?” She smirked, “I told you I wasn’t going to make it easy on you. You’ll have to seduce me.”
He pulled her up and even in the darkness, as his eyes adjusted, he glimpsed at her shape on top of him, “Well, I suppose that’s what I’m doing right now then.” Mirage’s smirk disappeared. Now that she wasn’t alone, she wasn’t scared and she could make him out underneath her. His face was right in front of hers, and she could feel his heart beating against her strategically placed hand. In that moment, she didn’t want him to let her go. But she had other things to think of. He may not have a future to worry about since it was becoming quite clear to her that he would be the one she’d marry, but she did. She was going to be a queen, and a queen simply did not act in such a cheap way.
Salar felt her stiffen against his hold as she raised her head. “Let go of me.” She ordered.
He ignored her. “Have you decided?” He already knew what her answer was as she played with the thin rope of his shirt, rolling it between her fingers unconsciously. She didn’t need to say that she liked him back too. Her breath and the way her other hand seemed to be holding onto his side and stroking him with her thumbs was reason enough for him.
“What if I choose someone else?” She asked; anxiety in her voice apparent.
“And why would you do that?” He said, reaching up to mash his hand in her hair. His other hand was dangerously below her waist and he rubbed the little dip at the bottom of her spine with this fingers.
“To spite you.” She whispered, aware of his hands and the warm feeling spreading through her limbs.
“You wouldn’t… I know that much about you.” He murmured back, running his lips against her ears down to the curve of her neck. “I know you like me.”
Her hands slid onto his chest as he caressed her. “I also know that you want me.” She jerked away from him. Such acceptance of her plain feelings for him was too embarrassing for her.
“I do not.” She declared and before he could do anything, reached up and grabbing the edge of a stair, slithered away from him and brushing off her clothes, marched back up. Salar stayed as he was and sighed. How was he going to deal with this mercurial woman!
He heard her call out to him, her voice receding as she went up, “Do you want to die down there or are we going to get out of here!?”
Grumbling, he got up and followed Mirage. Quite far from his thoughts of killing her, she had really cast a spell on him and he couldn’t get out of it. Back in the sunlight, he stayed silent as Mirage stood fuming, waiting for him to show her the way out. He pushed against the stone by the ledge with his foot and a door beside the one they had come out of opened. Pursing her lips, she inquired as to where it would lead. Pleased that it would lead out to the bottom of the tower on the outside wall, she made to go first but still suspicious that he’d try to trap her once more, she told him to go first, threatening to cut off his jugular vein with her nails if he tried to pull such a trick again, ignoring his statements that it had been her impatience that had led to her entrapment.
“You look beautiful, darling.” Queen Nadira said, tears glistening in her eyes. Mirage stood on a pedestal in front of a full length mirror donning a blood red and golden gown. Her reflection looked back at her, wide –eyed and pale. Tonight was bonfire night along with a wonderful display of fireworks. Tomorrow, she’d declare to the whole Kingdom that she had chosen Salar to be her husband. It had been a week since she had been so close to him as she had been in the secret passageway. Now, she ignored the longing she felt as she looked gloomily back to the window and resisted the urge to roll her eyes and the queen held up Mirage’s hand to admire the way the sleeve draped off her curve.
“Beautiful…” She murmured.
After she had returned from her escapade with Salar, she had gotten a letter informing her that Tatiana had had to leave urgently over a private matter. Since she knew everything about Tatiana, she became irritated that Tatiana had kept a problem secret from her and her bad mood started and stayed throughout since she didn’t get any time to talk to Salar either. Her bad mood was always the bane of her family, accordingly, she said, “Aren’t you getting ready, mother? Or is that what you’re going to wear?” She watched with satisfaction as Queen Nadira’s face fell.
“This is a new dress…” Her voice faltered and she stared at her reflection beside Mirage who was now smiling smugly, not caring that she had hurt her mother’s feelings.
“Don’t listen to her mother. She doesn’t know a thing about beauty. It’s a miracle she was blessed with such a face even though she doesn’t deserve it.” Alana said from the bed where she was lounging, waiting for Mirage to get ready so that all the princesses could go downstairs with the queen together.
Queen Nadira relaxed and looked gratefully at her daughter who smiled secretly. As Mirage stepped off the pedestal, Aria grabbed the material over Mirage’s hips and stretched it down. “Mirage, you gained weight, this dress would fit you perfectly if you’d stop snacking on those sweets.”
“You stopped eating sweets 8 months ago, and you still look like a bloated-up cat.” Mirage snapped. “At least I have curves, not rounds.”
“Ladies…” Roxie called from the bed, sighing at her sister’s snippy attitude. She never understood why they didn’t like each other as much as she liked all of them. “Behave…”
“Wonderful. A nine year old is teaching you manners now, Aria.” Mirage said.
“She said it to both of us.” Aria’s voice shrilled.
“Girls, enough! Please!” Queen Nadira shouted over the squabbling sisters. She always felt that her children didn’t deserve to be treated with royalty since they never acted like they were a part of it. The fight carried on for hours and even after meeting all the guests and laughing at the same stupid jokes, Mirage and Aria would throw comments back and forth, burning each other up. Finally, at the moment of the bonfire, King Sarosh took Mirage’s hand and led her away to the pit where she could see the wood being gathered up. Her father draped his hand around her shoulder as they stopped right in front of the pile and as she saw the workers throw oil over the wood, her eyes narrowed. A large scrap of wood looked familiar but she couldn’t quite place. Across the pit, Salar’s eyebrows went up in surprise as he saw a broken up guitar in the mess.
Suddenly, Mirage gasped. It was the corner of a painting. It was all coming back to her now, and then she realized. The pile of wood was huge, towering over 10 feet, and her eyes went to and fro as she registered each carving, each piece of furniture and each velvet draping to her home; her Saulta. A scream held up in her throat as the pile went up in flames, the licks of fire reflecting in her eyes as she forced her tears to stay in. She couldn’t believe it. She had loved Saulta, she had made Saulta and now, it was all burning up in front of her. The smoke rose up as she looked on in horror, and happily, King Sarosh leaned in and whispered into his daughter’s ear. “Never cross me.” Those words were the death of her and she felt her knees buckle. This was a nightmare, this couldn’t happen, she thought desperately.
Straightening back up, King Sarosh discreetly handed Mirage something that he had taken out of a satchel that Abid had handed to him. She took it without looking and stared at the fire, her mouth going dry. Numbly, she looked down in her hands and her blood ran cold. A long rope of braided brown hair sat innocently, tightly wound. She looked at it in confusion, noticing the crusted-up blood on one end of it. And then it hit her hard.
She screamed as she recognized the hair as Tatiana’s. The music playing alongside stopped and everyone looked at her shocked. She screamed again as her ladies ran for her, her mother bumped into people as she made her way to Mirage who was holding onto what seemed to look like a thick rope.
“TATIANA!” She screamed and looking up at King Sarosh, wanted to kill him, “YOU MURDERER! YOU KILLED HER.” Tears slid down her face.
People had hardly ever seen Mirage so the sight of a crying screaming Mirage was an absolute shock to her. Salar edged his way towards her as she shook the rope in King Sarosh’s face.
“HOW COULD YOU? HOW COULD YOU?” She yelled, holding the braid up to his face. Shoving it away, King Sarosh looked entertained, rather than horrified. “She was a bad influence. She had to be put down.” He explained slowly, as if he was speaking to a dim child.
“WHERE IS SHE?” She cried as she felt her mother’s arms close around her and she fell against them, holding on for support, guilty that she had resented her mother so much some time before.
“Now Mirage, stop acting like that, you knew it was going to happen sooner or later. She took you to Saulta, away from your home. You acted up whenever she was around. So I took care of it. She won’t bother you or anyone else anymore. Now stop being a child and get yourself cleaned up.” King Sarosh said, good-naturedly as if handing over bloody hair belonging to family was a regular thing to him.
Mirage couldn’t take it anymore, the pain was too much. “YOU BASTARD!” She screamed at the top of her lungs and freeing herself from her mother’s vice-like arms, she ran for it.
“Such a passionate young girl, she is.” She heard her father say as she ran inside. Tatiana was gone. Her father had killed her. All because Mirage was too cowardly to face the people whose lives she had destroyed. Tatiana had warned her about this but she hadn’t listened and now… Mirage cried out loud. Her heart ached too much and she could feel her head pounding. A horrible feeling was spreading through her body and she felt like killing herself.
She didn’t know how she got to her room, and as she climbed the stairs, she heard her ladies call after her. She halted, turned and screamed at them. “GO AWAY! GET AWAY FROM ME! I DON’T WANT TO SEE ANY OF YOU EVERY AGAIN! YOU’RE ALL FREE!” She sobbed as she tasted her tears on her lips. “I DON’T WANT TO SEE ANY OF YOU IN THIS CASTLE EVER AGAIN… go home…” She broke down and leaving her ladies-in-waiting in shock, she made her way up and slammed the door open.
Nothing seemed to matter anymore. She loved Tatiana more than she loved her own family and now she was never going to see her again. Hear Tatiana scold her or coo around her, trying to make Mirage see light in her darkest of moments. The lights in her room were extinguished. There wasn’t even any moonlight. Her cries echoed back to her ears as she staggered in. Her dresses were strewn on the divans, each more beautiful than the last. They had all been Tatiana’s designs and her favorite had been the one Mirage was wearing right now. Suddenly she couldn’t breathe and as she made to take it off, she found that she was still holding Tatiana’s hair. She threw it away as if it had come to life. She grabbed at her beautiful gown and tried ripping it away from her body but it was sewn on strongly and after much might, not the stitching but the cloth ripped in two from her shoulder down to her stomach. Her corset, the one she had naughtily bought from a lingerie shop in London peeked out from underneath and Mirage cried even more. Everything around her, she had bought with her best friend and now she had Tatiana’s blood on her hands. She pawed at the hairclips on her head and yanked them out, not bothering to think about the pain. Her hair fell down, all frizzy because of the pulling. She fell to her knees and clutched her face in her hands. Her head was spinning and she wanted to die. She dug her nails into her skin and dragged them down. The pain was excruciating since Mirage loved keeping her long nails sharp and she felt the skin throb underneath her touch. She wanted to rip apart her own skin, thinking that perhaps that way the pain in her body would find release and she scraped at her face even more until she felt blood fill her nails.
She couldn’t go down there. She couldn’t face those stupid people who were enjoying a party downstairs, who didn’t know that her father had brutally killed her best friend and was now expecting her to accept it. She couldn’t. And all of a sudden, everything fell into place. She wasn’t going to stay here any longer.
She winced slightly as she pulled her fingers away from her face, her facial wounds starting to hurt. She stood up, and as if automatically, she went to her bed and leaning down, took out her favored clothes that men usually wore. She didn’t remember how she took off her dress and put her old clothes back on, and rubbing her eyes with the back of her hands, she saw the streaks of kohl smear over her skin. She wasn’t going to be like that anymore. She was going to kill her father. She loathed him.
Mirage straightened up and heard her back pop. She was going to go look for Sepehr and the others, and take a boat to Sahilibur, the new capital. There, she’d accept her position as Queen since her father had already sent out the letters that she was going to become queen the day she got married. Her mind snapped back to Salar. She needed him, and she knew how to get him on her side. Turning, she stooped down to pick up the braid and looked at it. It was Tatiana’s hair indeed; she was the only girl in the kingdom, in Mirage’s opinion, to have such beautiful wavy hair. She laid the braid on her bed amongst the tattered remains of her dress and looked up. Sepehr stood in the doorway, his expression ghostly. He looked at the braid and then back at her. She had seen his blurred face as she had run off before.
Mirage felt her tears slide down her face. She nodded. Sepehr squeezed his eyes shut and gripped the door jamb as if he couldn’t support himself.
“Sepehr”, she started.
“It’s not your fault…” He said, his voice breaking, “Your father killed him.”
Mirage nodded again. Her face looked mutinous. “I’ll kill him.”
Sepehr took deep breaths and opened his eyes. “Good.” He said hoarsely.
“We’re running.” She blurted and waited for him to say something. He stared at her with dead eyes and after a few minutes, when he had thought everything through, spoke, “where to?”
“Sahilibur”, she replied.
He eventually spoke after willing himself to think, “The Mirage is ready for a voyage. We can escape on that. The men are already there. They don’t know anything about this.”
Mirage looked down and said weakly, “We’ll need to do one thing before we go.” And taking his hand, she pulled him towards the window and showed him the passage underneath so that they could escape undetected.
“I’m going to need a husband.” She said with finality, and jumped.
“What a debacle…” king Darius said, walking leisurely off to the quarters. “Who’d have thought the statue could cry.” He laughed, not bothering to look at Salar who was walking beside him, his mind numbly working and his eyes still wide with disbelief.
“King Sarosh is more of a mad-man than I thought!” King Darius chuckled at the recent memory of Mirage’s screams, the same memory running through his son’s mind made his blood boil at King Sarosh. He was a blood-thirsty psychopath, one who didn’t even forgive his own daughter, his heir… Salar thought.
As he heard his father chuckle, he gritted his teeth and not wanting to beat up his own father, excused himself and telling Behroz that he wanted to walk alone for a while, went off to the grounds. He finally reached the entrance to the room below Mirage’s a few minutes later and pondered over the thought of going up to meet her. He had to do something, she was going to bits. He couldn’t let her be like this. As he thought this through, he glanced up at the dark spot of Mirage’s window. Was she even there? He thought.
Out of the blue, the door in front of him opened like a magical cave, and there she was, emerging out into the grounds with relief etched across her face along with blood. He registered her appearance as Sepehr stepped out behind her and halted, almost colliding into her but Mirage didn’t notice. She kept looking at Salar as if he was an angel and reaching out; she held her hand towards him.
“I’m running.” She said; her voice grave.
Salar looked at Sepehr who strode off towards the general direction of the river, looking like death.
Mirage whispered, “And you’re mine. You promised.”
Salar thought of it. He didn’t know his father’s reaction. What he’d say or do. But at this moment, looking at Mirage’s bloody tear-streaked face, her kohl spread around her alien eyes, he felt the need to take her in his arms and never let go. So much did that desire overcome him that he looked up at the castle once more, and shook his head, mentally saying goodbye to his father.
“I’m yours.” He stated, taking Mirage’s hand.
The Mirage sailed off. The sound of the water lapping against the boat felt soothing. She had escaped. The boat was under her command, headed towards Sahilibur. In a week, she’d be there with a month’s ration on board. As she saw the faint light flare up in her tower, Mirage turned her back to it. Aryan, Azin, Navid, Sam, Rostam, Shaya and Emad were all here. Sepehr was in the captain’s room, Salar was seated beside her, observing her silently. She turned to him and attempted to smile.
Salar shook his head. “There’s no need for such pleasantries.Take your time” He said simply.
Mirage dropped her smile, gratful that he understood her feelings and looking out at her crew, wondered. Would she ever be able to smile again or was her happiness also taken away with best friend’s life.
© Copyright 2016 Regina De Corda. All rights reserved.